Constitutional Law

Can cop have 0INK as his vanity plate? Top state court mulls First Amendment case

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An Indiana cop may be on the verge of regaining his treasured 0INK vanity plate.

The state’s top court heard arguments Thursday on a class action pursued by Greenfield police officer Rodney Vawter, with the help of the American Civil Liberties Union of Indiana, after his renewal application for the 0INK license plate was denied, the Associated Press reports.

Solicitor General Thomas Fisher told the Indiana Supreme Court that the state has a right to reject offensive messages on license plates, pointing to a recent U.S. Supreme Court decision that upheld the right of Texas to reject specialty plates displaying a Confederate flag image. But in the complaint (PDF) Vawter filed in Marion Superior Court in 2013 he said the state’s vague standards violated the First Amendment right to free speech and the 14th Amendment right to due process.

Ken Falk, legal director for the ACLU of Indiana, told the supreme court that the state’s “Wild West” system of approving vanity plates is clearly biased toward certain viewpoints, since, for example, Indiana has regularly approved plates with religious messages, the Indianapolis Star reports.

In his complaint, Vawter explains that he chose to use the verbal pig snort on his license plate for his personal vehicle because “as a police officer who has been called a ‘pig’ by arrestees, he thought it was both humorous and also a label that he wears with some degree of pride.” He also alleges that “in discussing this with fellow officers, he has found that they also generally found his license plate to be humorous and not derogatory or malicious.”

When the state motor vehicles bureau denied his license renewal application in 2013, it cited a state law that prohibits plates that are “misleading” or carry “a connotation offensive to good taste and decency.”

However, a trial court judge agreed with Vawter and the ACLU last year that the state’s program of approving vanity plate messages was unconstitutional, as the Indianapolis Star reported at the time. The judge also told the state to OK an applicant’s requested UNHOLY license plate.

As a result of the ruling, the state put a freeze on issuing personalized license plates to anyone.

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